Because I’ve Tasted the Competition

On a Sunday two years ago, I began RCIA classes to be received into the Catholic Church. The class met at 10:30 and I woke up planning to attend Mass at 9:30. Then I had a second thought: Give the Episcopal Church one more chance. Try one last taste test before buying that lifetime supply of Maxwell House.

I was aware of two Episcopal parishes in our town, and I already knew that I didn’t want any part of one of them. An upscale Yankee parish in the “better” part of town, it would have been like alumni weekend at my prep school, a social occasion wrapped around moments of spirituality. I can hear Katie saying, That sounds pretty harsh, and it is. But I know what I’m talking about, honey. I “knew” people at that parish, and they “knew” me. I would have “seen” people there and would have been “seen” by them. No, thank you. The only person I wanted to be seen by was God.

One more thing about that upscale parish, and this may sound snobby or anti-snobby, but this is my blog and I’ll say it: There aren’t many Ferdes at that parish. There aren’t many Franks or Carries. And I’ll bet there aren’t any Barbaras or Roses. My grandmother, my Ammie, converted to Catholicism after my grandfather died, and it was just because there weren’t any Ferdes, Franks, Carries, Barbaras, or Roses at her upscale Episcopal church in Minnesota that she moved across town to worship with the Italians, the Irish, and all those people whose names ended in vowels.

I set out walking toward the other Episcopal church, which is within walking distance of my house and also of my ultimate destination, St. Mary Star of the Sea. I had already begun attending daily 7 a.m. Mass at St. Mary’s, even before RCIA, and I was used to worshiping with 50 to 100 others at that hour. So when I arrived for 8 a.m. Sunday services at the Episcopal church near my home, I expected to find a good number already assembled. I entered . . . and thought I must have been mistaken about the hour. One woman was puttering about, moving a book or arranging flowers—but no one else there. I stepped back toward the exit only to run into the minister, who was entering. I looked baffled and muttered something; he said welcome; and I sat again.

By 8 a.m. there were 8 parishioners present. It was—sorry, Katie—it was depressing. A quiet chapel shared with a couple of friends can be a very inspiring place, I know this. But the “depression” didn’t flow only from the small number in attendance. There was an emptiness about it—bare walls, bare crucifix—and even a certain hopelessness, a feeling of, We’re trying really hard here, God. Why is this not working out? I do not mean to offend anyone with this post, but this is my truth as I’ve lived it, so . . .

I walked to St. Mary’s, and I became a Catholic. After a lifetime of sporadic visits to parishes Congregationalist and Episcopalian, after many years wandering in the spiritual wilderness, I was home.

Mmm-mmm, good!

AND THIS JUST IN: Last evening, while driving to Vermont to be with my mother on the first anniversary of Dad’s death, I received a text message from someone very, very dear to me. “At RCIA,” the message began, surprising me (I didn’t know) and bringing a great, big smile to my face. Hallelujah! Score another one for the home team.

Because of My Father III

I woke before 3 a.m. today thinking about how my father hated the Yankees. In the dream I woke up from, Dad was Tweeting with A-Rod about hitting streaks. The remarkable thing about Dad was, he could hate the Yankees but still admire A-Rod when he was going well. Me, I never found a place in my heart for “Mr. April,” who never seems to go well in October.

That’s the difference between Dad and me, a difference I’d like to bridge in my old age. Christ called it loving your enemies; I’d just call it an immense openness to all comers, an openness to experience—Dad’s experience, his kids’ and grandkids’ experience, life. Dad was for life.

As Dad neared his 75th birthday, which fell eight years, three months, and 21 days before his death, he began planning a party for himself. He found a place for the function and began assembling a list of old friends, then stopped short at entertainment. What to do? He wanted his party to be fun, “not a lot of old fuddy-duddies sitting around staring at each other.” So he hired a DJ who would play not only music that young people would enjoy—there were always young people in Dad’s life, what with six children, assorted motley in-laws, and eleven grandchildren—but also the big band music of his war and courtship years.

With the DJ signed up Dad started to worry again. What if the old fuddy-duddies didn’t tap their feet to the music, didn’t sing along, didn’t dance? So Dad took the next logical step: He went downtown to a health club, walked in, and struck up a conversation with the receptionist. She was a lovely young woman with the sort of Midwestern wholesomeness Dad found so attractive. He didn’t care for floozies. Dad told the young woman about his party, the DJ, the kind of crowd he expected—then he asked her if she would dance at his party.

What he had in mind, he said, talking right past her incredulity, I imagine, was that she would wear a modest but attractive cocktail dress, stand in front of the DJ, and wiggle. It would be even better, he suggested, if she had a friend, a sister, a cousin who could come with her and wiggle too.

Dad loved women, always approaching them with an open but innocent appreciation that I’m sure most found endearing. The young lady agreed to wiggle, and she thought her girlfriend would make two. She and Dad agreed on a price (maybe $100 for the pair) and the deal was done.

The Wigglers were a huge success at Dad’s 75th. My four sisters, Katie, and our two daughters joined the two women after dinner to form a big ol’ wiggling chorus line, and to judge by the photographic evidence submitted here, Dad and I had a grand time.

My father died a year ago today, on the day when we Catholics honor St. Padre Pio. This morning’s Mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church was dedicated to his memory. You might wonder what The Wigglers have to do with YIM Catholic. Fair question.

As Dad grew older and settled into retirement and grandfatherhood, he became a beacon of receptive kindness. He made space for each of his children (a motley crew ourselves) to follow our destinies as we saw them. For one of us that meant marrying a Jewish man and having her three sons bar mitzvahed. For another it meant a courageous life as a single woman pursuing a theatrical career in New York City. For yet another it meant Catholicism.

When I told my father I was converting to Catholicism two years ago, his first reaction was that his Methodist mother would roll over in her grave. Four months later, he was present, and proudly, at my first communion and confirmation. Six months later, to the day, he died.

I have 25 years from now until I turn 83, Dad’s age at death. I hope that these years, if granted to me, will radiate the same joy, openness, and charity that my father showed in his final years. In fact, I think I will to dedicate these years to his memory, if that makes any sense at all. It seems the least I can do to honor my father, my best male friend, who is now in heaven.

Padre Pio, pray for him.

Because of Thérèse of Lisieux

I know very little about St. Thérèse. I should hardly be writing about her at all. But she would understand. And she is one of the reasons YIM Catholic.

How could you not adore this picture of her dressed as Joan of Arc for a play staged at her Carmelite convent? To me, it’s a sort of Holy two-fer, since I am a big fan of Joan too.

How could you not admire someone whose path to God was “The Little Way,” a litany of tiny sacrifices and self-humiliations during her eight years of religious life? We make such “big” efforts—going to Mass, confession, Adoration, saying rosaries, reading the Office, performing service and giving alms . . . Meanwhile, with her tiny, imperceptible gestures of devotion and self-sacrifice, Thérèse became a saint and Doctor of the Church.

How could you not be fascinated by a female Doctor of the Church (there are only three) who would not be known to us at all if she had not written a memoir, Story of a Soul?

I have read her book only once, but my copy is heavily underlined, and several passages stand out. Here are a few small petals from “The Little Flower”:

Jesus has made me feel that in obeying simply, I would be pleasing Him.

Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be.

I see that all is vanity and vexation of spirit under the sun, that the only good is to love God with all one’s heart and to be poor in spirit here on earth.

I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him, for there is so much self-love intermingled with spiritual conversations!

And finally, one for the Catholic women who responded so generously with comments on my post about their seeming happiness:

Ah! poor women, how they are misunderstood! And yet they love God in much larger numbers than men do and during the Passion of Our Lord, women had more courage than the apostles since they braved the insults of the soldiers and dared to dry the adorable Face of Jesus. It is undoubtedly because of this that He allows misunderstanding to be their lot on earth, since He chose it for Himself. In heaven, He will show that His thoughts are not men’s thoughts, for then the last will be first.

Because Pope John Paul II Was Cool

Did I tell you JPII was Bono? Yes, I did. (Though BXVI, aka Mozart, is still “my pope.”) Thanks to The Deacon’s Bench for this great pic.

Because Catholic Women Are Happy

One of the gratifying things about this blog is hearing from Catholics around the world about their mostly positive experience of the Faith.

Nothing has touched me more than the many comments from Catholic women and one Catholic man in response to my question about the happiness of Catholic women. The female respondents include a woman from India who is happy with her faith but sometimes unhappy with the Church hierarchy.

The one man was Ferde, natch.

Let me add another couple of voices to that chorus. One is Suzanne Temple, a home-schooling mother living in the US. (I’m guessing the South; she’s just now planting a magnolia tree.) Suzanne has a terrific blog, not so much about Catholicism, which is her faith, but about raising (count ’em) six boys. Kristin Lavransdatter (one of her favorite books too) has almost nothing on Suzanne. Check out Suzanne’s blog, “Blessed Among Men,” another joyous comment on the lives of Catholic women today. The picture here is one of many on the site celebrating the lives of her very cute kids.

Then there’s Sarah Reinhard, whose blog of Catholic motherhood and womanhood is always worth a look. She calls it the Snoring Scholar, aka Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering, aka Musings of Sarah Reinhard. Whatever you call it, take a look.

This just in: Still another home-schoolin’, breviary-totin’ Catholic woman has a blog, and she’s from a part of the globe I’m partial to. After checking out Suzanne’s world and Sarah’s (she an Ohio State fan), move on up to the home of Gopher football and Jessie Ventura to check out Minnesota Mom.

Because Catholicism is Messy

Father Barnes recently said, quoting George Weigel, I think, that the wonderful thing about Catholicism is, it’s messy. The thought hit me again yesterday afternoon as I attended Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Boston with Lorenzo and other friends from Communion and Liberation (CL). It was back in force this morning as I pondered a reading for the Feast of St. Matthew.

I don’t know what Weigel means by messy, but this is what I mean. How could these both be “Mass”?!

Exhibit A: An improvisational Franciscan celebration with a homily by a nun, an annotated Lord’s Prayer (including Francis’s meditations, so that The Annotated Our Father runs 5 minutes instead of the usual 20 seconds), and loud, rhythmic music, a la The Captain and Tennille, which led Gabriele, an Italian musician and CL stalwart to smile kindly as we walked out beneath banners reading “All Are Welcome” and say, “Sort of rock, yes?”

Exhibit B: A traditional by-the-numbers Mass celebrated with no-nonsense reverence, no improvisation, and, inevitably, a thought-shaking homily at our parish church in Beverly, built a century ago by devout Italian immigrants whose grandchildren are still among the earliest arrivals at 7 a.m. daily services?

Our Cardinal Archbishop, Seán O’Malley (is that accent out of place, or is it just me?), is a Franciscan and therefore it was no surprise to hear the sister’s homily start out with in-your-face provocation to anyone who took offense at the Cardinal’s presiding at the Kennedy funeral. Let me just say, though, that with all due respect for the Shrine and its fine parishioners, I know several fine Catholics who might well have walked out in protest the moment the homily began. Me? I gritted my teeth while tapping my foot to The Captain and Tennille.

So what’s Catholicism? Believe me, I’m not here to tell you. I testify only as a completely happy convert completely perplexed by what one commenter called the ongoing “donnybrook” within the Church. Latin Mass? Vernacular Mass? A priest who celebrates ad orientem or one who plays to the crowd? As Adam “The Stoner” Rove habitually says on “Joan of Arcadia,” chah, Jane.

Perhaps you can see why this “joke,” mentioned in a previous blog, sticks in my mind:

What are the three things God does not know? (1) How many orders of Franciscans there are. (2) How much money the Dominicans have. (3) What the heck the Jesuits are doing.

Not laughing at this joke, but staring slack-jawed instead, exposes me as a neophyte Catholic, I know. But someone, please, tell me: Here we have three of the most significant orders founded in the past 2000 years, and the “joke” is that they’ve all gone off the rails? You call that a church?

Don’t get me started on politics. It took me three months as a Catholic to realize that the Register and the Reporter, both claiming to be “National” and “Catholic,” were screaming at each other from opposite sides of the playground. “Did not!” “Did so!” As I approach my daily goal of 700+ words, I’m more comfortable moving right to Matthew and closing with a word from Our Lord.

No one could figure out what Jesus was doing inviting a tax collector to follow Him. The Pharisees and Saducees were scandalized, and Peter, James, John, and the rest of the gang were also puzzled, I imagine. How could a corrupt functionary of the Roman empire be allowed into the proto-Church surrounding Jesus? Pretty messy, wouldn’t you say?

St. Bede’s homily that provides today’s second reading from the Office helps me to understand a bit better:

Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men. He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: Follow me.

This is all we can do, I think: Follow Him—while all the time scratching our heads at the strange assortment of “Catholics” surrounding us and moving more or less in the same direction.

Because This is My Great Adventure

I dropped out of college at nineteen to follow Cesareo. At thirty-three I married my polar opposite, dumbfounding my friends. Four years later, I launched a business using a model I made up myself. Ten years later, I started another business, requiring skills I didn’t have. I am no stranger to adventure, but none of these adventures matches my conversion to Catholicism.

Each previous adventure represented a sharp discontinuity in my life, a quantum shift. Each had a different motivation, a different driver. Thinking about them individually today, I realize that my conversion to Catholicism combined all of these motivations and more. Which makes Catholicism my ultimate adventure.

First, Cesareo. I left college for the reason that many people drop out. I was dissatisfied. In the parlance of the day my leaving school was “countercultural.” Dissatisfied with myself mostly, I realized that college was leading me nowhere. Cesareo offered an avenue of hope. A brilliant psychologist, the founder of a growth center called Cumbres in Dublin, New Hampshire, he seemed to promise a countercultural approach to education and to living. As indeed he did. He was the formative influence of my young adult years.

Ironically, forty years later, I have joined the greatest countercultural institution of our times, and I embrace it wholeheartedly for that reason. This statement will appall some and incense others. To these, the Catholic Church is the ultimate orthodoxy, the most conservative cabal on the planet. But consider what our culture represents today. From Sigmund’s psychology to Victoria’s Secret, sex—the free and convenient enjoyment thereof—is the foremost motivator of contemporary Western man. With death coming in a close second. More wars, more genocide, more abortions, more spectacular atrocities than ever before in history . . . The 20th century ran up an impressive death toll, didn’t it?

The Catholic Church is regularly criticized by the chattering classes for standing against our so-called sexual “freedom” and our ready embrace of murder. I stand with the Church precisely because it is so countercultural.

Ech. This post is getting grim, and I’m a good news kind of guy. So let’s shift deftly to Webster’s Second Excellent Adventure: marrying Katie. This was not counter to anything. It was all for. It was nothing but toward—a pure act of love. I fell in love with Katie three years before I even asked her out (long story). I waited (longer story). The love never died while I waited, nor has it since she agreed to marry me. Believe me, marrying her was a quantum leap, a delightfully mad discontinuity that, I’m afraid, still dumbfounds many of my friends. Katie and I just laugh.

So exactly with the Church and my conversion to it. As I stated already in my first post about Katie, where Catholicism is concerned, I just fell in love, pure and simple.

Starting Memoirs Unlimited, Inc., in 1988 was a different sort of adventure. You can read a bit about it at the related blog. No details needed here; the point is only that the adventure demanded a lot from me and was an unqualified success because it somehow drew on a talent set that is almost uniquely my own: good editing skills, combined with a sympathetic ear, especially for people in their 80s, plus what I call “knowing the secret handshake.” Having been raised in private day and boarding schools, having belonged to country clubs “back in the day,” having a Yale father and a Westover mother, I am very comfortable in the social atmosphere inhabited by most of my clients. And to top it all off, I was young, hungry, and very good at self-promotion (something I have little appetite for anymore).

Of the four, then, this adventure was a matter of “works,” my works, my effort and drive, and it is the one adventure of the four that I can rightly take some personal credit for, since few people could have been as successful as I have been in this arena. The record speaks for itself: over 50 personal memoirs and 10 organizational histories—including the current bicentennial history of Mass General Hospital—in 20 years. Yeah, I’m proud of it, and it ain’t false pride.

In the same way, when I jumped with both feet into the Catholic Church, I “worked” hard: Mass just about every day, lots and lots of reading, and all the other niceties of Catholic devotional life that came my way—Eucharistic Adoration, confession, even a lay movement, Communion & Liberation, on my “résumé.” If you’re going to become a Catholic, I recommend you not be a part-time Catholic. Throw everything you have into it. I did.

Then pray for help. Because when I started Commonwealth Editions, I sure needed it. With Memoirs Unlimited well established, I got antsy, wanted another challenge. And given the opportunity I published the first of over 150 “trade” books (books sold to stores) in 1998. I knew nothing about this business. The first thing I didn’t know was how punishingly hard it is. After ten years of regional trade publishing, we have earned many kudos but few profits.

Still, I would not have lasted three months in this business without plenty of angels—so much seemingly coincidental help coming my way that it was enough to make a man believe in the Holy Spirit. The first angel was Katie. She began selling the books I published and, wow, did she have a flair for it! Next, our best-selling author came our way through a completely hilarious chain of circumstance (another story too long for this already long post). Employees appeared when needed. A huge lump-sum rights fee landed the same year we had to take our biggest write-off. Starting with zero skills, Commonwealth Editions (unlike Memoirs Unlimited, where I had the skills) seemed to sail along on a sea of goodwill.

This happens when you convert to Catholicism and throw yourself into it with both hands and feet, as I did. God helps you. Or Ferde. Go to the same church every day and sit in the same pew. Pretty soon, you will be surrounded by love and support. This happened to me. Ferde introduced me to Communion and Liberation, where I met more loving, supportive people, like Ellen and Carol, Neil and Julie, Michael and Elizabeth in Beverly, and Lorenzo, Roberto, Lele, Alessandro, and many others elsewhere. Then last summer I happened to run into a woman who sings in the St. Mary’s choir, and she encouraged me to join. More love, more support. The Church will carry you, I promise, if only you follow it with all your heart, soul, mind, strength—you know the commandment. Even when your “works” fall short, as mine have repeatedly, something will raise you up and bear you forward. That is the companionship you find in the Church. That is the companionship that is the Church.

I’m afraid this post has become a long college-style essay, and I hated writing essays in college. But then this essay seems to have pretty much written itself, which tells me there must be two or three bones of truth buried somewhere in it. For what they may be worth.

To sum up (and make this truly college-worthy): Converting to Catholicism was a movement away from a culture that I had come to distrust and toward something for which I felt a deep affection. It has demanded works, which is to say efforts, from me, and at the same time it has carried me where my strength alone could never have gone.

What does my family (the picture) have to do with any of this? Without the love and support of Katie, Martha, and Marian, none of the above would have been possible.

Because of “Joan of Arcadia”

It’s only Friday morning, fifteen hours before airtime, but already I miss “Joan of Arcadia.”

It takes courage to be a priest, as I wrote on Wednesday, but it takes a special kind of courage to live in a household with three socially active women (a wife and two daughters) and repeatedly insist on staying home Friday evenings to weep openly over a TV melodrama about a high-school girl who talks to God. Whatever I know about being martyred for the faith, I learned during the two seasons of this show (2003–4, 2004–5).

And I wasn’t even a Catholic yet. And, OK, you hardcore faithniks, I know, it’s not even really a Catholic show. Joan’s dad (Joe Mantegna) may have attended Mother Cabrini High School in Chicago, but apparently he and his family no longer attend Mass. Or at least it’s never mentioned, anymore than politics is mentioned. And God (just another character in the show, “a slob like one of us”) talks equally of Islam as a valid faith tradition.

But people, it’s not Joan of Mecca now, is it? It’s Joan of Arc—adia! And like Fr. Jim Martin, all you have to do is allude to the Patron Saint of France, the shepherd girl of Domrémy, the Maid of Orléans, and I get all verklempt.

According to Web info available from the Independent Movie Database, “Joan’s” creator, Barbara Hall, wrote a list of guidelines for her writers, which she called “The Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia.” These commandments were: 1. God cannot directly intervene in the action of the show. 2. Good and evil exist. 3. God can never identify one religion as being right. 4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature. 5. Everyone is allowed to say “no” to God, including Joan. 6. God is not bound by time. This is a human concept. 7. God is not a person and does not possess a human personality. 8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways. 9. God’s plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him. 10. God’s purpose for talking to Joan, and everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things. Which is to say, you cannot hurt a person without hurting yourself; all of your actions have consequences; God can be found in the smallest actions; God expects us to learn and grow from all our experiences. However, the exact nature of God is a mystery, and the mystery can never be solved.

Sounds pretty Catholic to me, except for that very PC Third Commandment. Which would probably move Ferde to declare Barbara Hall a heretic. But according to a fine interview in the St. Anthony Messenger, the show’s producer is indeed a Catholic, a convert like me. And to judge by her press glossy, she’s mighty pretty as well.

Catholic producer, Catholic show or not, I’ll look a confessor in the eye and avow that “Joan of Arcadia” helped form me as a Catholic. Or maybe I already was one. The other night I went out to dinner with Cesareo, who has been reading this blog. In his quiet, stroke-muted voice he said to me, “I learned something about you from that thing you’re writing.” Thing? Thing?! His speech may be slowed, but Cesareo has not lost his rhetorical fastball. I braced for the outrageous but heard what sounded like the truth: “You were a Catholic all the time. Even when you didn’t know it.”

I have boxed sets of both seasons of “Joan of Arcadia,” and I recently started running through the episodes again for the second—third—well, OK, fourth time, but even now that I’m a card-carrying, Mass-going member of the Universal Catholic Church and my family is cutting me a bit more slack, Godwise, I can only watch one or two episodes at a time without a familywide outbreak of derision.

So then, but, OK, the pilot:

Joan is sleeping restlessly, apparently troubled by a dream. Meanwhile, her father, Arcadia’s police chief (though that will change, stay tuned) is investigating the murder of a young woman who may have been a prostitute. Cut back to Joan, tossing and turning and hearing a voice, an insistent voice calling her name: “Joan . . . Joan . . .” She wakes up startled, afraid, and like any other teenager chased by night terrors, she pulls a headset over her ears and buries herself in her covers. As she does so, Joan Osbourne’s “What If God Was One of Us” comes up on the soundtrack and we cut to commercial.

The voice turns out to have been God’s voice. Like Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century France, this twenty-first-century girl hears and—when she gets over the spookiness of it—talks with God. Not hard, actually, when God takes the form of a young hottie on her bus ride to school. But later in the episode, God takes a new form, talking to Joan across the lunch line at Arcadia High as a black lady kitchen worker who ain’t gonna take no sass.

Ferde would probably turn to the Red Sox game the moment Joan accuses God of being pretty mean in the Old Testament and he (the hottie this time) assures her that, “I come off a little friendlier in the New Testament and the Koran.” But if I were with Ferde, I would tell him to chill, sit back, and listen.

God tells Joan to get a job at the Skylight Bookstore (a real store in LA, where scenes were filmed during the first season). And as happens whenever Joan faithfully listens to the voice of God, her first day on the job leads by a chain of circumstance to the arrest of the man who murdered the young woman in the park.

Along the way, we are introduced to the Girardi family: Mantegna as Dad; the always sympathetic Mary Steenburgen as mother Helen, a dropout from art school who will return to her art in future episodes; and most notably Michael Welch as geeky younger brother Luke and Jason Ritter, son of John, as older brother and former high-school athlete Kevin, recently confined to a wheelchair following a paralyzing auto accident. The Girardis are a real family, where the middle-aged parents are still sexually active, the teenage kids are always ready to be grossed out by that, and all of them are dealing with suffering (Kevin’s paralysis). Luke’s job in this episode is mostly to come out with a really cool quote from the scientist Michael Faraday, who said, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.”

The final scene shows us another positive consequence of Joan’s listening to God’s voice. Kevin wheels into her bedroom to admit that her getting a job at the bookstore has shamed him into shaking his self-pity and getting a job himself, something Mom has been pleading for. In other words, our peaceful, positive witness to one another as Catholics, as Christians, even as Muslims can be a powerful, salvific influence on those around us. Just look at Frank and Carrie.

Next Friday: Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2.

Because of Frank and Carrie

I introduced Katie to Frank and Carrie Kwiatkowski at Mass last Sunday and said, “Honey, get a good look. That’s what I want us to be 25 years from now.” She understood.

Katie and I celebrate our 25th anniversary this fall, and when we hit our 50th (GW), I’ll be Frank’s age. I first met Frank at Saturday morning men’s group, about the time my dad was dying of melanoma. Frank and Dad were the same age, and this, plus Frank’s peppery defense of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching, attracted me to him immediately.

On Sundays and many weekdays, these 80-something lovebirds sit in the pew directly in front of me. Now, wait a minute, I can hear Carrie saying. I’m nowhere near 80! Which is the truth. I think she’s all of 76 or 77. And she always wears a hat. Often, it’s something old-timey and sweet, but sometimes she’s sporting headgear that even my fashion-savvy 21-year-old daughter, Marian, would covet.

Frank was a former Marine, a milkman, and something of “a wild Indian” by his own confession when he met the still-teenaged Carrie in upstate New York. After Carrie used a holy card of St. Therese of Lisieux to pray for a better job for him, Frank landed a position with Prudential Insurance and rose to regional sales manager. After retirement Frank was elected to five two-year terms as Amsterdam (NY) town supervisor; he also served as a county supervisor.

Nearly 60 years into their marriage, the Kwiatkowskis are the happiest couple in town. I sometimes pass them on one of my afternoon walks as they sit on a bench atop Independence Park, overlooking the Atlantic. They always, always wear these expressions of quiet, assured contentment and peace. Carrie often has a rosary in her hands, delicately passing beads, with her lips gently pursed. Frank might be reading about St. Faustina and Divine Mercy. The couple is active in the Carmel community nearby.

It’s funny what happens in a Catholic church like ours. You become deeply attached to people you might not even notice otherwise. When Frank was hospitalized with a chest ailment, I went to see him. Next time he was in, I went again with Ferde, and then again. I suppose I was reminded of my last visits to Dad in the hospital, of the tenderness I felt. But I would love Frank and Carrie even without the Dad connection. Their witness, their presence in our parish is a testament to the beauty of traditional marriage and lifelong adherence to the faith. Catholics like this with whom you worship regularly become closer to you in some ways than family.

Frank and Carrie have family to spare: five children and seventeen grandchildren, including a granddaughter who graduated from West Point and has served two and a half years in Iraq. It does the old Marine proud, I’m sure. But come to our church in Beverly some day and I’ll introduce you. Come 25 years from now, and I hope to show you another St. Mary’s couple just like this.

Because It Takes Guts to Be a Priest

We all admire courage. We all admire heroes. What’s a hero? A man who gives his life for his fellow, right? A fireman who rushes into the World Trade Center to save a life but lose his own. A soldier who walks toward enemy fire to pull his buddy behind the lines. A pilot who bails out in the Hudson River, keeping his cool and thereby saving lives.

But people, let’s face it: These are moments of heroism, acts of great élan, to be sure, but performed on impulse and usually over before the “hero” has a chance to consider the consequences.

What about someone who, with years of premeditation, gives his whole life for his God, his Church, his fellow man and woman? What about someone who takes—and keeps—a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience forever? For what personal gain? For what ulterior motive?

I’m sorry, this one’s a slam dunk: It takes a special kind of courage to be a priest. And that makes me proud to be a Catholic. That’s all I have to say about this issue.

* * *

Fortunately, my pope is not the hothead I am. He has some comments in the second book of interviews with Peter Seewald, God and the World, that have more than a little to do with priestly vocations, and we’ll let him close out this post:

[In our culture today] we want to be able to react to new demands, and we hope, by changing jobs fast, to be able to climb the ladder as quickly and as high as possible. But I think there are still callings that demand the whole of a person. Being a doctor, for instance, or a teacher, is not something I can do just for two or three years, but is a calling that requires my whole lifetime. That is to say, even today there are tasks that are not a job that runs alongside my life, so to speak, in order to ensure I have money to live on. For a true calling, income is not the criterion, but the practicing of some skill in the service of mankind. . . .

We all stand in a great arena of history and are dependent on each other. A man ought not, therefore, just to figure out what he would like, but to ask what he can do and how he can help. Then he will see that fulfillment does not lie in comfort, ease, and following one’s inclinations, but precisely in allowing demands to be made upon you, in taking the harder path. Everything else turns out somehow boring, anyway. Only the man who “risks the fire,” who recognizes a calling within himself, a vocation, an ideal he must satisfy, who takes on real responsibility, will find fulfillment. As we have said, it is not in taking, not on the path of comfort, that we become rich, but only in giving.